Twitter Trolls, and How to Deal With Them
IT’S an unfortunate fact of modern life that everybody in the public eye will, at some point, be subject to abuse on social media.
And I do mean everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an A list movie star, a member of parliament, a parish councillor or a journalist on a local newspaper, if you are in any way known to the wider public, sooner or later abuse will come your way.
Twitter is by far the worst platform for abuse. It differs from Facebook in that you are not communicating with friends and acquaintances, but with the wider world, complete strangers who know little or nothing about you, your life, your work and your beliefs. What’s more, you have a 140 character limit in which to make your point.
On Twitter, even those who are in no way in the public eye are subject to abuse. Having a few strong opinions is enough for absolutely anyone to be abused, or ‘trolled’ as it’s now known.
I have long since become accustomed to banal attacks on Twitter. Sometimes people have read my work and dislike it. Sometimes petty jealousies from former colleagues resurface. On other occasions, my simply criticising the content of a television programme can lead from a barrage of abuse.
It is usually at its worst when Question Time is broadcast on Thursday evenings. If, as David Dimbleby suggests we do each week, and tweet with ‘#bbcqt’ at the end, you can be sure that no matter what you tweet, you will be subjected to some deeply unpleasant attacks. A few typical examples of how a comment translates in the minds of your attackers:
Uncontrolled mass immigration is bad for this country = You are a racist who hates immigrants.
Britain would be better off outside the European Union = You are a racist and a xenophobe.
Marriage should be between a man and a woman = You are a homophobe, a Nazi and hate all gays.
The Tories are right to make cuts to public spending to bring the deficit under control and to encourage the unemployed to find work = You hate unemployed and disabled people. You’re ‘Tory scum’.
The most aggressive mob by far are what I call ‘liberal bigots’, a group of people who pride on calling themselves ‘tolerant’, but don’t really mean it. What they actually mean is that they are tolerant of you only if you share their views: Pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, pro-multiculturalism, anti-austerity, anti-Tory, pro-gay marriage, pro-Islamic, pro-Palestinian, pro-Russell Brand.
They suffer from ‘liberal superiority complex’, namely that they think they’re better than you because they are liberals, not because there is any strength to their arguments. The fact they are liberals is enough. Anyone with views different from their own is fair game for abuse.
One of Twitter’s main weaknesses is the 140 character limit, which does not allow for thoughtful, well-developed arguments, and is instead a friend to the soundbite and the ‘Smart Alec’ comment.
It’s generally pointless trying to debate with such people under these conditions, but sometimes I give it a go.
Around a year ago, I appeared on a Channel 4 programme called ‘The Complainers’. On the day of broadcast, all contributors received an email from the production company advising us of how to deal with abuse on social media, which broadly, and rightly said, don’t engage in debate with abusive people and block them immediately.
For those of you who didn’t see it, the programme itself took quite a light-hearted tone. During the short few minutes in which I featured, I was seen walking around my estate reporting broken street lights, vandalism and dog fouling to my local council using the FixMyStreet app (I’d recommend it, by the way).
The Twitter response was mostly positive – most said things like ‘good on you’ and ‘that’s interesting – I’ll download the app’ and there were a number of humorous remarks that were in good taste. In the weeks that followed, I was approached a few times while out in public, and at the two weddings I attended in the months that followed I got talking to people who’d seen the programme. In real life, nobody was anything other than pleasant and good-humoured.
Inevitably, there were about six very aggressive people on Twitter. All, bar one, were people I’d never heard of, and were swiftly blocked.
The exception was Chris Jameson, a middle-aged ‘box office supervisor’ of a theatre in Harrogate, who had hurled a series of tedious insults at me in the previous 12 months, dating back to when I had commented, during an episode of Educating Yorkshire, that the headteacher, Mr Mitchell, had not behaved appropriately by putting his feet on his office desk and repeatedly addressing a pupil as ‘mate’ as he reprimanded him.
Jameson had drifted in and out of my Twitter feed in the period since, often responding to points that weren’t made. He also developed a habit of taking screenshots of my feed and making comments of his own. It became quite an obsession. All quite sad really….
I’d largely forgotten about/ignored Jameson until last weekend, when, late on Saturday evening, I experienced an instance of social media abuse far worse than anything I’d gone through before. I’ve come to expect a little abuse every time I give a radio interview (usually about sport) but I hadn’t done so on Saturday. This was on a totally different level.
I had never even heard of Victoria Chipp until late on Saturday night. She works for the recruitment consultants, Badenoch and Clark in London, but is originally from Harrogate, perhaps coincidentally the same town as Jameson, perhaps not. She is also a ‘rugby groupie’ and raises money for rugby union charities in her spare time.
I can only assume she had been drinking when she began ‘debating’ the EU referendum with me late on Saturday evening. The picture on the left is how the discussion began.
It declined in quality as the discussion went on, and the caption on the right shows how we parted. The rest of the discussion consists of her resorting to cheap, clichéd insults, often in semi-articulate English, often replying to points that weren’t made. She preferred to think of me as a caricatured ‘xenophobe’, immigrant-hating eurosceptic, when in reality I had not posted anything that could lead any logical person to reach that conclusion.
On Sunday morning, I received further correspondence from her friend, Katy Bowling, who had the nerve to accuse me of being ‘childish’ with my responses to the foul-mouthed Miss Chipp. Earlier on Sunday morning, Bowling had annoyed England rugby international James Haskell on Twitter (he went on to compare Bowling to ‘Ronnie Corbett in drag’ before blocking her).
I’ve since received self-pitying emails from Bowling, who insists she hadn’t been drinking, but was suffering from food poisoning at the time. She also describes Chipp as an ‘inspirational woman’. I kid you not!
Back to Sunday. This was getting tedious. Chipp had accused me of ‘asking for her phone number’ the previous evening. This was an outright lie. Here is the screenshot of what I actually said to her. As you can see, I offered to give her my phone number so we could continue this discussion in a (hopefully) more adult way outside the confines of Twitter. It takes a far braver person to debate an issue over the phone than to hurl drunken insults from behind their keyboard. As you can see from the screenshot, I did not ask for her phone number, which, in any case, is easily obtainable on at least one rugby fundraising website!
As the day wore on and their dreary, foul-mouthed ramblings continued, she was joined by her friend, the opera singer Ben Sweeney (no, I’ve never heard of him either). A little later on, Chris Jameson decided to join in, with his usual lack of wit:
If Jameson had a fraction of the intelligence he thinks he has, he could have looked up my CV online with relative ease and discovered that by the time I was Chipp’s age (25), I’d already had three books published, and that I’ve worked in newspapers, magazines, radio and online, and have work published across all platforms on a frequent basis. There again, maybe he wasn’t trying to be funny and he really is a ‘bodybuilder’, albeit one with a muscle wasting disease…..
He also decided to post this feature in my local paper about my appearance on The Complainers. He’s put the word ‘journalist’ in inverted commas, as though me being in this feature somehow disqualifies me from being a journalist.
This weirdo’s fascination with me continued. He went on:
Well, as anyone who saw The Complainers will know, I don’t ‘spend my evenings’ ‘pointing at bags of dog dirt and broken street lights’. As the programme made clear, I simply report such things to the council using an app when I’m out and about. All pretty mundane stuff compared to his peculiar Twitter stalking……
Chipp herself didn’t get any better as Sunday dragged on:
Chipp clearly isn’t all that bright. There is no such thing as a ‘wrong fact’. It’s an oxymoron. In the space of a day, she had called me a ‘chav’, a ‘wanker’ and a ‘prick’ on Twitter. I hadn’t resorted to any such language, yet she was claiming to be the victim of a campaign of abuse by me, without a shred of evidence to back it up. There’s more. A LOT more. But it’s too dreary to post on here.
I got bored with this tirade of verbal diarrhoea from Chipp and her keyboard warrior friends and blocked the lot of them. Life is too short to waste too much time on people like that.
One final twist to this episode. Some months ago, a person I’d never heard of called Matthew Bullman asked to become my friend on Facebook, saying he was a fan of my work. I don’t normally allow people unknown to me to become a Facebook ‘friend’, but he’d been complimentary so I made an exception.
Over the course of a few months, he had occasionally joined in Facebook discussions but had generally said very little. On Sunday, he followed me on Twitter, having previously been largely inactive. As you can see from this screenshot, on Sunday he was supportive of me and sent me a sympathetic message (see the bottom of the shot and work your way up)
By Monday evening, he had blocked me from both Facebook and Twitter, and had joined Jameson and Chipp:
There’s just one problem with what Bullman says about me – none of it is true! For a start, I’ve never, ever fixed a street light in my life, let alone done it for a living. At no point in either The Complainers or in the Wales Online feature was such a claim made.
Secondly, I don’t often use the terms ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ in my work, or indeed in conversation. There are two reasons for that:
1. I’ve never heard definitions of either term I’m happy with.
2. Generally speaking, both are used as terms of abuse, as Orwell pointed out more than 60 years ago.
All these people are now blocked and are out of my life. Any further abuse by them will be reported to Twitter directly, or, if necessary, the police.
I’ll probably never know for sure what motivates these people. At a guess, Chris Jameson is disappointed with the way his life has panned out and/or hates the fact I outwitted him in our original Twitter argument. For a man who claims not to like me, he spends a great deal of time discussing me on Twitter.
What motivates Victoria Chipp? Evidently, she is not as clever as she thinks she is. I suspect she is just an attention-seeker.
As James Haskell pointed out when he was irked by her friend Katy Bowling, maybe, deep down, they hate themselves and resort to attacking others to make themselves feel better. I never had Haskell down as a philosopher before Sunday but he may well be onto something with this. That might well explain Jameson’s lengthy periods of attack against me.
To end as we began, I am certainly not alone with this. More than once, a well-known sports star has handed me their phone to let me see the daily tirade of abuse they endure on Twitter. I’m amazed so many of them continue to use it!
One friend of mine, an inoffensive and affable radio broadcaster, told me he gets a barrage of abuse at least once a week, simply for expressing his opinion on a sporting fixture or TV programme during his show.
I don’t want to waste too much more of my time on these sort of saddos, so am going to take a new approach, and I’d advise all readers of this blog to do the same:
At its best, Twitter can be a fun, engaging place, to monitor opinion, share humorous remarks, and to help and inform people. At its worst, it can be a vehicle for anonymous, vile ‘trolling’. Not every tweet deserves a reply. If a person wants to make a stupid comment, be rude, and think they’ve won an argument against you, let them think it. It’s not your concern. Your time is too precious to waste trying to educate and persuade people who have no intention of engaging in civilised discussion.
Focus your time and energy on those who deserve it.